When you visit Gambia and Senegal – as myself and the Rutland Osprey team have done for the past four years – it is obvious that this part of the West African coast is vitally important for many species of migrant birds from Europe. We know all about the Ospreys of course, but walk along any beach in Gambia and you will see wintering Whimbrel. Out to sea flocks of Little Terns will be foraging in the rich waters and in the nearby coastal scrub Nightingales will be uttering brief snatches of their famous song. As recent research on our declining summer visitors has shown, it is essential that conservation effort is not only focused on areas where these species breed, but also on their migration flyways and wintering grounds. It is this theory that underpins the Osprey Flyways Project.
In my opinion education is fundamental to the success of any conservation initiative and so when we first visited the Gambia and Senegal in 2011 we set up a pilot education project in Gambian schools. It is exciting to report that three years later, the project is really gaining momentum.
Our latest visit to the Gambia gave us the opportunity to visit three of the schools we are currently working with as part of the Osprey Flyways Project. Students from Dasalameh Upper Basic, Tanji Lower Basic School and St Martins Basic Cycle School in Kartong have all recently been on fieldtrips with project coordinator Junkung Jadama and it was great to hear how much they have enjoyed the opportunity to get out and see their local wildlife. As Mr Gibba, the Deputy Headteacher of Tanji school pointed out, the project has opened the eyes of the staff as well as the students to the rich diversity of wildlife that their country supports.
A key element to the success of the project is that the work is being led by a Gambian. Junkung has a good career as a professional bird guide and he stresses to the students at every opportunity, that conserving wildlife makes real economic sense. Not only does tourism contribute significantly to Gambia’s GDP, but there is the potential for the students to follow the example of Junkung and make a career out of their growing interest in the natural world.
It is also significant that many of the teachers we have spoken to were simply not aware of the migratory journeys that species like Ospreys make each year. I get the feeling that when local people release how far species like Ospreys have flown for the winter, they feel a sense of ownership. This may sound a little naïve on my part, but it is the over-riding feeling I get when talking to West Africans about bird migration.
To help the students (and teachers) to learn more about the migratory flights of Ospreys and other migrant species, we are installing computers and an internet connection in all of the schools we are working with. This will allow them to follow the progress of satellite-tagged Ospreys and to make links with other schools on the migratory flyway. Last week we installed computers at Tanji and Kartong schools. To put the significance of this into context, despite the fact that the two schools have a combined total of 2500 students, they had only one working computer (and no internet connection) between them for students to use. We have installed a single machine in each for the time being but will be expanding that in the coming months.
We are extremely grateful to Melton Rotary Club for their assistance with the project. Two of their members, Bill Hill and Bill Glancy, are also Osprey project volunteers and they joined us for the second week in The Gambia. Melton Rotary have generously donated £2000 to the project that will enable us to purchase machines for all the schools currently involved in the project. Bill Glancy is an IT expert and his technical knowledge was indispensable during the trip. The computers themselves were provided by Lasting Solutions Limited, an ICT business solution provider, based in Serrekunda. Their Head of Business Development Alhagie Mbow installed the computers and will also provide after-sales support for the schools. Alhagie runs ICT training courses at the Lasting Soultions HQ and we plan to send at least one teacher from each school onto these courses.
Providing internet access for the schools is clearly an essential component of the project and two companies QCell and Unique Solutions are currently undertaking the relevant site surveys in order to do this. Once we have their quotes we will precede with the installation at Tanji and Kartong. The other schools will then follow.
Providing computers and internet will allow the Gambian students to participate in World Osprey Week, our exciting new initiative that is taking place from 24th-28th March. To find out more, click here.
Aside from fieldtrips and computers, we are also planning to develop a series of teaching resources based around Ospreys that meet the requirements of the Gambian teaching curriculum. This opens up the possibility of expanding the project across many more schools, and in time, the whole of The Gambia. This is clearly a major challenge but a challenge that we believe can make a real difference.
Finally a huge thank you to those of you who have supported our various fund-raising challenges for the project. As I hope this blog demonstrates, your money is making a real difference in helping to educate young people in The Gambia about the value of protecting their wonderful wildlife.
We would also like to thank Pearson books who have generously donated education books for the schools we are working with. We delivered books to Dasalameh and Tanji schools and the others will be distributed to the other schools in the coming weeks by Junkung Jadama.